New Jersey’s bid last year to tighten up its alternative high school test left the state red-faced and scrambling -- not to mention the approximately 3,000 students eventually denied their diplomas.
In the first round of results from this year’s administration of the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), the numbers appear a little better and the process cleaner.
Whether that translates into more students graduating this summer -- or, conversely, still more controversy about the test -- is yet to be seen. The testing’s main critic said there was little yet to temper his concerns.
New summary data from the December administration showed that about a third of the students taking the alternative test had passed so far, double the rate at this time a year ago, officials said.
According to the preliminary numbers -- stamped "confidential" -- 37 percent of 4,600 so far taking the language arts section passed, and just shy of 37 percent of the 6,500 taking the math passed.
In addition, state officials said a new appeals process had begun this winter that had already heard more than 600 appeals, with about half of those approved.
State officials stressed there are still two more rounds of the AHSA, plus another round of appeals, so the estimated 7,000 or 8,000 students on the cusp still have multiple chances to pass and earn their diplomas.
"This is a progress report," said Jeff Hauger, the state’s director of assessment. "As progress reports go, this first stage looks better."
The latest results come a year after 2010's tumultuous spring for the state's alternative test and the thousands of students who had to take it after failing the more-standardized High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). Passing either one is required for graduation in New Jersey.
The AHSA is a more open-ended exam than the HSPA, providing more time and performance-based formats for the language arts and math tests. It was first devised in the 1980s as an exam for those who struggle with the pressures of standardized testing.
But over the years, the exam – then known as the Special Review Assessment (SRA) -- became more the norm in some districts where failing rates on the HSPA were high, and it drew increasing criticism for being too easy to pass. Specifically, some said its looser time limits and scoring, often by the students’ own teachers, had led to a test almost impossible to fail.
In response to that criticism, state officials for several years debated whether to eliminate the SRA altogether, and settled instead on tightening the administration to limit the test-taking time and provide the scoring outside of the districts.
But in the first year of the changes, the failure rates skyrocketed, setting off protests and complaints that the state had changed the rules midstream at the expense of students who had done everything else asked of them.
The tensions were eased somewhat as the state devised an appeals process almost on the fly, and thousands of students petitioned the state with everything from writing samples to SAT scores. Still, an estimated 3,000 students didn’t receive their diplomas due to not passing the tests, officials said, well more than the few hundred who are usually denied.
This year, officials said they hoped for improvements now that schools and students were aware of the tighter rules, and they said the latest results appeared encouraging. The state also set up a more formal appeals process in which students who just missed passing the HSPA would have an early chance to appeal in February. There will also be an appeals period for all students in June.
"In this second administration, we’re committed to an orderly process to help students show they have acquired the skills necessary to earn a diploma in New Jersey," said Alan Guenther, spokesman for the state’s education department.
Still, concerns abound, some lingering from last year, others new to this year.
When asked if the state ever finalized how many students had gone through the appeals process last year and either were approved or denied, Guenther conceded yesterday that there was no detailed data ever compiled beyond the rough estimate of 3,000 students failing short.
"They weren’t tabulated," he said of the appeals numbers."
'We have an estimate, but don’t have a precise number for every school," Guenther added.
A chief critic of the state’s handling of the AHSA -- then and now -- said that was troubling.
"It is striking that there is still no accounting for those denied diplomas last year," said Stan Karp, a project director with the Education Law Center. "What happened to those 3,000 kids? With no accounting or tracking, what does that say about our database system?"
While Karp called the higher passing rates this winter encouraging, he said the new administration of the test and its results also still left its own set of worries. He said districts were still struggling with little guidance to how the AHSA and appeals would work this time, citing just one online webinar held by the department.
“It seems there is a good possibility of another graduation crisis this year with another untested appeals process,” he said.